Even now, in light of a left elbow injury deemed “significant” that could end his season and by default, his career, Moyer doesn’t get sneaky or attempt to hide the obvious. His repertoire has been the same ever since he broke in to the big leagues in that game against Steve Carlton at Wrigley Field in 1986.
“I’m still under contract so I feel obligated to make every effort to allow this to heal and to give myself that chance to pitch,” Moyer said.
See, Moyer used the idea of retirement as a tool. With his edgy and upfront way of dealing with things, it’s fair to deduce that retirement and his age motivated him and kept him going. He loved to point out that his father-in-law, ex-basketball coach Digger Phelps, urged him to give up baseball and think about another line of work.
Moyer heard from Phelps during a period where he had been released three times and granted free agency another three times. He had been traded twice and sent to the minors three more times. In fact, even Charlie Manuel, the most diplomatic of baseball men when it comes to evaluating a player’s talent, said he thought Moyer was one his way out of baseball during the early ‘90s.
We all know what happened next. Moyer hooked up with the Mariners when he was 34 and won 145 games in the next 11 seasons and finishing in the top five of the Cy Young Award balloting three times. When he arrived in Philadelphia for the stretch drive in 2006, most baseball folks thought he was simply finishing up a solid career with his hometown team.
But then he kept going. The Phillies kept giving him contracts, too. There were a couple of one-year deals and then a two-year deal after he helped pitch the Phillies to their second World Series title. There were accolades, records and milestones that the sage lefty seemed to have to address after every game he pitched. He handled it with aplomb to a point, but then got bored with it.
“You start getting caught up in things like that and you might start losing some focus on things you need to do,” Moyer told me in an chat in the deserted clubhouse at Nationals Park a couple of seasons ago, while contemplating his place in baseball history. “I think there's plenty of time for me to look back at the end of the season or at the end of my career and say, ‘You know what? That was cool,' or ‘I remember that,' or ‘I remember that game.' But for me, having the opportunity to have the longevity that I have is the most special thing for me. To continue my career and to play and to contribute with a team, I think that is first and foremost. If you are around long enough, those things are going to start to happen.”
That was the pat answer for a little while, but then to Moyer it stopped being about age and instead became about results again. Actually, it seemed as if he wanted to answer the questions the same way as any other veteran on the club without first discussing that he was the oldest player in the game.
And why not? In the four seasons he pitched for the Phillies, no one won more games. Even last year when he struggled and was removed from the rotation in favor for Pedro Martinez, Moyer led the club in wins. At age 47, after a winter spent recovering from three surgeries, Moyer led the club in wins halfway through the season.
In doing so Moyer wasn’t simply defying the odds or his age, he was simply defiant. When he reached some age-related milestone or career mark hinging on longevity, the old lefty shrugged it off. He was bored by the idea that he was old, yet stoked the fires by saying he had no thoughts on his imminent retirement.
He pointed out that consistent workouts, a solid fitness foundation and smart recovery were the key to athletic longevity. His age was meaningless aside from the fact that it required a bit more recovery time between workouts. Otherwise, when pondering the reasons why so few players lasted as long as him, Moyer saw it austerely.
“Some players get injured and others just lose the desire," he told me in Washington that day two years ago. “Then some, for one reason or other, are told to quit because they reach a certain age or time spent in the game. Some just accept it without asking why.”
Moyer never accepted it. Better yet, he never accepted what people told him he should do with his career—his life.
But with serious injuries all bets are off. Misty-eyed and reflective before Friday night’s game against the Rockies at the Bank, it’s obvious that Moyer knows he is going to be forced with a tough decision or the cold slap of reality very soon. Yes, there are still tests to complete and scenarios to discuss, but Moyer understands that the exit after one scoreless inning in St. Louis on Wednesday could have been his last lap.
“It’s probably one of those situations that you don’t want to have happen, but if it happens it happens. There’s nothing I can do. I can’t turn back and change anything. The injury is the injury—you live with it,” he said. “I can honestly look myself in the mirror and say, if that’s my last outing, so be it. I really gave it my best and I enjoyed my career. But that’s not the way I’m looking at it as that being the case.”
Still defiant and engaged in a fight with those who are resigned to accept outcomes and convention wisdom, it’s clear that Moyer’s goal was to keep pitching until it was no longer physically possible. He wasn’t slowing down and he wasn’t taking shortcuts, either.
He never lost it.
But he’s not blind, either. He’s not wishing for a perfect, lucky outcome in order to take one more spin around to celebrate some type of victory. Why should he? Moyer has faced his every day in baseball with a cold, hard shot of reality and that defiance. He’s celebrated the mundane and taken joy in the unbelievable fortune that comes to those who are lucky enough to throw a baseball for a living.
He wasn’t granted any shortcut when the Cubs, Rangers and Cardinals placed him on waivers, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to accept one now.
“Because once it’s over it’s over whether I just plain retire or if it’s due to an injury,” Moyer said. “I’ve always said that when that last day comes, I’m done.”
There was no smirk this time with those words. No tears, either. It was face-slapping reality, no different than the most inexplicable 267 wins in baseball history.